In a valley high in the Wakhan Mountains of Afghanistan, a hunter several weeks ago waded through snowdrifts to check his traps and found that he had snared one of the rarest creatures alive: a snow leopard.
If a naturalist had seen the leopard, he or she would have focused on its snowy fur with black, half-moon markings and its white goatee. A naturalist would have known that it is a solitary, elusive creature, a night hunter that roams the icy Central Asian peaks far above human villages. A naturalist would have known that there are perhaps less than a thousand of them left on the planet. But the hunter who snared the snow leopard saw only a $50,000 price tag. That was the fee supposedly offered by a wealthy Pakistani businessman to any hunter in the Wakhan who could deliver a snow leopard alive.
The leopard was snarling and furious at being caught, with its hind leg gashed by a wire snare. But otherwise, it was in good shape. With the help of a few friends, the hunter tied the leopard's legs and muzzle, threw it in the back of a truck, and headed out of the Wakhan Valley to Feyzabad, a three-day journey of hairpin curves along terrifying mountain roads.
But the capture of a snow leopard, once believed to be extinct in Afghanistan, didn't stay secret for long. The feline was to become the object of a four-day rescue operation that involved NATO forces, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, a royal prince and even Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the mission would end like so many others of similarly good intentions in Afghanistan.
First, the hunter and his friends were undone by their own greed. Upon reaching Feyzabad, they thought they might get a better price for their cat than $50,000 and began to shop around. "Somebody on the Internet was supposedly offering $2 million for a live snow leopard," says Mustapha Zaher, director general of the National Environmental Protection Agency in Kabul.
But the environmental protection agency office in Feyzabad was tipped off about the cat. Zaher happens to be a prince, the grandson of the late Afghan monarch Zaher Shah, and he has far more clout around Kabul than the ordinary bureaucrat. "I raised a hullabaloo," Zaher tells TIME with a grin. He paged through his contacts book, calling U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a contingent of German troops stationed in Feyzabad (who at first were skittish about leaving their base, even though that region of Afghanistan is relatively calm). And he called the Afghan President. It had been a hard day for Karzai; suicide bombers and gunmen had attacked an Indian guesthouse in Kabul, killing dozens. But the President was sympathetic to the plight of the leopard. "He told me, 'Do what you can to save him,' " says Zaher.
The leopard was confiscated from the hunters, and Richard Fite, a New Hampshire veterinarian who advises for the U.S. Agricultural Department in northern Afghanistan, was dispatched to tend the snow leopard. Fite was more accustomed to dealing with farm animals, and to encounter a snow leopard was a marvel. "I never imagined in my life that I would be so close to such a creature," he says in a telephone interview. At first, the leopard was kept in a cage at the police station, where it was poked by curious onlookers.
When Fite examined the leopard, it had been moved to the atrium of a nearby guesthouse, and its cage was littered with chunks of uneaten raw meat. The leopard growled at Fite but remained subdued, he says. When he looked into the eyes of the animal, says Fite, he could tell it was ailing. "All I could think of was the tragedy of it all," he says, adding, "The mental stress on the animal from capture, transport, being bound and being held for almost a week would have been unimaginable."
Over the next three days, Fite tended to the leopard. Then, after advice from experts at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Kabul, a decision was made to fly the leopard back to the Wakhan and free it into the wild, once it had regained strength. "We didn't want it dumped unconscious on a snowfield where it would freeze to death," says Dave Lawson, the Society's country director. Bad weather kept the U.S. helicopter grounded. After what seemed like a day of improved health the leopard was holding its head up and grooming itself and a break in the storm clouds that would allow the chopper to take off, Fite was optimistic. But the next morning, on March 2, he was informed that the snow leopard had died. "My guess and it is just that is that it died from shock" he says, adding, "Snow leopards are solitary, reclusive animals."
An Afghan elder who had seen the leopard in the cage wept when he saw its dead body carried out. "A lot of these mountain people have respect for wildlife," says Lawson, who was told by an elder that "God put these animals here for us to look after." The death of a snow leopard may not be of great consequence in Afghanistan's larger turmoil. But for many Afghans, the snow leopard is a symbol of the country's spirit of untamed wildness. For a few brief moments, everyone from the President to the top U.S. diplomat in the country turned their gaze away from politics and terrorism to a shivering, sick cat in a cage. And when it died, everyone from the highest echelons of power to humble villagers suffered a profound loss.
With reporting by Shah Mahmood Barakzai / Kabul